This is the last week of the fall semester at Keene State College, where I teach three face-to-face writing classes; it’s also the last week of the fall semester at Granite State College, where I teach an online literature course. As the final reckoning known as Finals Week approaches, students are starting to get nervous, suddenly showing up for class (and for their professors’ office hours) to see what they can do to guarantee a good grade for themselves. In some cases, of course, it’s a matter of “too little; too late”: if a student has consistently skipped class and/or assignments, there’s very little they can do in the final hour to salvage a wrecked semester. But when I say that these days my mind is heavy with thoughts of Failing, I’m not referring to this sort of panicked, suddenly attentive student.
At the end of each semester I grade my students…but at the end of each semester, I spend much more energy, it seems, grading myself. What have I accomplished this semester? What could I have done differently, and better? Each semester I try something new, and at the end of each semester, the new teaching tricks and techniques that seemed so promising at semester’s beginning seem hollow and ineffective. Perhaps because the end of fall semester coincides with the arrival of winter’s cold and dark, I typically find this time of the school year to be emotionally draining, a kind of bitter let-down as I consider all the teaching I didn’t manage to accomplish over the previous three months.
At the end of the term, it somehow feels like teaching is all about failing, my failing: failing to meet the goals I set out, failing to really reach my students. Perhaps because I have perpetually high expectations of myself, I seem perpetually doomed to disappoint. The end of the term is when all one’s pedagogical chickens come home to roost, and this semester in particular I feel the weariness that comes when you send out more energy than you recoup.
This week as I feel myself literally dragging through these end-term days, I’ve derived an odd sense of comfort from the huge Silver Maple that stands on Fisk Quad near Morrison Hall, where I teach all three of this semester’s face-to-face classes. During two of these classes, I can look out the window and see this tree, my favorite on campus; during my night class on the other side of the building, I can’t see Silver, but I know he’s there.
Silver’s an old tree, and enormous: Silver Maples are quick-growing and short-lived, and this old tree is literally falling apart, his sprawling, low-branching limbs wired against gravity high above eye level. Someone–probably, an entire crew of people–has put a good deal of time and effort to keep Silver standing, for without those retaining wires, Silver would have long ago lost at least a limb or two, leaving him (literally) half the tree he used to be. A campus pamphlet about the trees of Keene State pays homage to this enormous maple and then notes, “Several other ailing specimens have been removed from the campus over the past few years.” Silver hasn’t yet failed, but he’s failing, a victim of both time and gravity.
Part of why I love this old enormous Silver Maple is the fact that he’s still standing, an anachronistic relic from the landscape’s pre-college days: in the words of that campus pamphlet, Silver “reminds us of the sandy riverbottom land on which the College is built.” This old tree is failing, but not yet failed. As long as someone–or even an entire crew of someones–keeps hope in this old tree, he’ll continue to stand even though we all know the ultimate, eventual end of his days. Failing isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative, which is the failure known as Quitting. Failing to reach the sky without a retaining wire isn’t so bad if at day’s end you’re still standing.